One of the things that caused me to fall in love with Bath was the hills. Fittingly for a place rich in Roman heritage, there are seven of them, each of significant size and incline (and in stark contrast to the general flatness of south-east Essex where I originally lived). They provide a perfect backdrop to some of the more famous views here, and nestling in between them Bath is by necessity a very compact city, protecting its world heritage status from a move into urban sprawl.
But venture up those hills and you can enjoy the flipside- a view down into the entire city. Whilst impressive by day when the true scale of the georgian architecture can be appreciated, it becomes unmissable at night, when streetlights trace the roads and key buildings such as the Abbey are illuminated, whilst distant lights on the opposite hills help frame the view and give the town a cosier feeling. Whilst the view is pretty good from my window, I think the best version is to be found from Smallcombe, part of the Bath Skyline Walk.
Over 500 acres of south-east Bath is National Trust land, including a 6 mile circular trail known as the Skyline Walk. Yet the very existance of this trail seems to be overlooked by both students and tourists alike, despite it winding around both the University campus and the Prior Park Landscape Garden (also a notable tourist attraction). Bath itself can often be teeming with visitors all year round, and the Skyline Walk offers a more tranquil way to appreciate the city or to provide a more challenging profile than some of the walks in the city centre.
The Official Route
The suggested route1 commences on University land and proceeds anticlockwise. This is obviously ideal for anyone living on campus (or visiting someone there) but getting to campus is possible by a number of routes, all of which pass access points to the walk. I'll give a run down of the course as intended, then discuss some of these alternative means of access and how they change the experience.
Assuming then that you're doing things properly, you first have to get to the RSPCA Cats and Dog's Home. If you're on campus, just ask any student :) If you're getting one of the wonderful bendy buses up from town (which I recommend in place of driving up to the campus, given limited parking), ring the bell when it turns into the campus from the top of Bathwick Hill and when it stops you'll be exactly opposite the road leading down to the home. The start of the trail is decidedly non-obvious: you're looking for a couple of stones jutting out of the wall and a National Trust marker; although a bigger visual cue is the Ice Club's launch ramp (for practicing toboggan run starts- the vast amount of crash matting at the end of it bearing the Team Bath logo should make it visible). Failing that the dog-walkers will probably be headed over to the first point of interest of the walk, Bushey Norwood, so you can follow them further down the main road and then cut across to rejoin the intended path.
Despite what the name suggests, this isn't so much a wood as a field. You may chance across standing stones, known locally as claver or 'key' stones, which were markers for an 18th century race course that covered both Norwood and much of the present-day University campus. As you follow the path you will be looping around the back of the university accomodation: the brand new (2004) Eastwood C developments which look like they were brought from Ikea, then Eastwood A and B, a sort of village of 3 storey houses where I spent my fresher year. Further in the distance the 9 floor monstrosity known as Norwood House can be seen; this is part of the main parade and presumably gets its name from these fields. Sadly the view to your right is mostly obscured by Hengrove Wood, but becomes visible further up the trail.
Now /these/ are woods. The going is a lot tougher here, with the path a lot less clearly defined and plenty of exposed rock and tree roots to catch you out, and it's fairly unmanageable in winter due to the mud, so be prepared or take an alternative route (see below) at the expense of some great views! Most of the trees remain from an original planting in the nineteenth century, but there has been a recent replanting project too.
Quarry and Golf Course
Emerging from Bathhampton Woods you will be on the site of a disused quarry and covered reservoir, behind the University and with the golf course between you and town. However, the previously blocked view over Warminster road is now opened up, and you can see the A46 (main route into Bath from the M4 motorway) cutting through the countryside of Swainswick and Batheaston; plus Little Solsbury Hill in the distance. This is actually a rather different view to those usually found in Bath, as it's looking away from the city rather than into it. Following the route round you will pass some radio masts and probably some cows before arriving at the golf club's car park.
From the golf course it's a very short walk to Sham Castle (which I've previously noded) which I recommend to get a good view of the sweep down to town, partly because you're about to walk it! Alternatively you can follow the walk a short distance down the golf course road (it's literally called that) and look up at the 'castle' instead.
Cleveland Walk and Smallcombe Farm
The walk now gets pretty steep. The route starts off downhill, hooking back towards the main road by running approximately parallel to the Kennet and Avon Canal along the Cleveland Walk, and then cuts across Bathwick to a region known as Smallcombe. This section rests between the two main roads up to campus- Bathwick Hill (11%) and Widcombe Hill (15%) and you're now going up. Lest you be tempted to catch the bus back to campus rather than entering Smallcombe, I'll point out that this is my favourite view in the entire city, and I often opt for a 50 minute walk home via Widcombe (admittedly, downhill) just to see it. It's also a reasonable spot for a picnic or, as recently tested, snowball fight.
On leaving Smallcombe it's a short walk up part of Widcombe before once again entering the fields. You've now completed about half of the trail, so the remaining section is concerned with bringing you back through Claverton Down. I haven't completed the entirety of this section, and from what I have done you're generally headed away from the city so the views are somewhat more restricted. Nonetheless, it's worth doing to get a view over the nearby Prior Park Landscape Garden- former home of Ralph Allen (the Sham Castle creator) and another National Trust property (although one you need to pay for unless you fancy blagging your way into the gardens via Church Lane and the surrounding fields!) The Skyline route doesn't technically run down to Prior Park, but you can take a different path at viewpoint 5 down to the border and then loop back up to the sixth viewpoint as indicated on the map. From there the walk runs essentially parallel to Clavertown Down Road past Wessex Water and then back to the Cats and Dogs Home.
Variations on the Theme
The route can be made shorter in one of two ways, both making use of the University. Once you arrive at Sham Castle you can head back to the campus proper to Quarry Road. You can follow this out of the University and onto Bathwick Hill via North Road and from there a short bus ride takes you to town; or you can take a footbridge over Quarry Road and wander through the university campus along the parade and back to the carpark/main bus stop. If you chose not to go to Sham Castle, the bus route is rejoined on Bathwick Hill just where the walk enters Smallcombe.
For a longer version, you can stop after Smallcombe on Widcombe Hill. It's now about a 20-30 minute walk downhill to the town centre (emerging behind Bath Spa Station) or a rather taxing walk of similar length back up the hill and to campus, returning to the Cats and Dogs Home without taking the Claverton Down Loop.
As regards joining the route at different places; your best bets are, again, each end of Smallcombe. The brave can walk up the entirety of Widcombe hill from the station- join it by walking through the car park at the back, cross the Avon on a footbridge, then the dual carriageway at the provided crossing, then head left to a run of shops which are at the base of the hill. Then it's your choice of proceeding clockwise or anticlockwise- the former goes against the grain of the above guide but lets you go downhill for a bit. Alternatively get off the bus part way up Bathwick Hill when it goes over the Kennet and Avon Canal and enter Smallcombe or the Cleveland Walk. This is also the best place to join the route from the Youth Hostel. The advantage of doing things this way is that about halfway into the walk you'll be able to take a break at the campus to get something to eat or use the toilets. Of course, if you're staying in Claverton Down you'll be able to arrange things so that you start and end there without having to mess about with Bathwick Hill at all; if you're in town head either for Bathwick or Widcombe depending on which is nearer.
- The University campus is everything the town is not architecture wise: unless you're looking for a stunning example of 60's concrete, the only thing of note is the Library and Learning Centre (featuring a lot of glass) or some of the newer departments such as Chemical Engineering. However, the sports facilities are first-rate and open to the public to a varying extent.
- The RSPCA is usually looking for dog-walking volunteers, although I'm not sure of the exact arrangements there (e.g. whether you can just turn up and take one for the entire skyline walk).
- There is an American Museum at the end of the same road as the Cats and Dogs Home.
- Both Sham Castle and Prior Park are accessible from the walk; see the main route description.
References and notes
National Trust Site for the walk; includes a fairly comprehensive map.
- My own visits to the Skyline Walk/University.
An entry for Everything Quests: Places to visit in Ireland and the UK
. A version of this writeup appears on SoSauce
, I am the submitter of both.